The vagina is self-cleaning.
It’s naturally equipped with “flora” or good bacteria that thrive with the help of the female sex hormone estrogen.
These healthy germs, called lactobacillus acidophilus, stimulate the production of natural hydrogen peroxide and lactic acid, which keep the vaginal environment within the ideal pH levels (3.8 to 4.5) and help minimize the growth of bad bacteria.
“With this acidic micro-environment, the favorable balance between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ is maintained,” says Sybil Lizanne R. Bravo M.D., RPh, chief of the section of Obstetrical and Gynecological (OB-GYN) Infectious Diseases at the Philippine General Hospital and Manila Doctors Hospital.
This is why feminine hygiene products are labeled “for external use only.” They are meant for washing just the vulva, or the outermost part of your vagina, and should never be used to cleanse inside the vaginal canal as it can kill the good lactobacillus bacteria that keeps it healthy, says Dr. Bravo.
For the same reasons, most experts advise against “douching,” or the practice of flushing the vagina with water or a mix of fluids—whether medicated like a feminine wash, or natural such as a homemade vinegar-water solution.
According to Dr. Bravo, this can cause infection by “flushing up the bad bacteria from the lower genital area to the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.”
You should go easy on the hygiene products.
According to Elisa Malvar-Cornelio M.D., OB-gyn and active consultant of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at St. Luke’s Medical Center Global City, you can forego feminine washes because the vagina is a self-cleaning organ. She advocates washing with nothing but warm water and a mild soap to “clean the secretions trapped in the pubic hair and vaginal folds,” and to do so sparingly.
If you must use a feminine wash, she suggests opting for an unscented variant, as added fragrances or ingredients that are supposed to whiten, firm, or cool your lady bits increase the alcohol content in these products. This can strip the vagina of its natural fluids and microorganisms, and alter its natural acidity.
While it's sometimes referred to as your "flower," your vagina shouldn't smell like one.
“The vagina is not meant to smell like roses or menthol or summer’s eve,” says Dr. Cornelio. The natural flora gives off “a mild scent that is not foul smelling” which is exactly what a healthy vagina should smell like.
Echoing this statement, Dr. Bravo explains that the vagina’s natural scent, though often described as musky, changes daily and with activity: The musk can get stronger when you exercise, due to sweat. During menstruation, the odor can turn metallic, due to the presence of iron in the blood. Even sexual contact can temporarily alter how you smell down there. But these changes aren’t unusual. For as long as your flower does not give off an odor similar to fish or rotten meat, Dr. Bravo says there’s no need to fuss.
Yogurt is good for your health down there.
This superfood is rich in lactobacilli, which are the same microorganisms that keep the vagina naturally clean and healthy.
What’s surprising is, some women hail plain yogurt as a home remedy for unwanted vaginal odors and infections, specifically if used as a wash or applied directly to the vaginal area.
According to Dr. Cornelio, the abundance of good bacteria in yogurt should “theoretically” make it a good natural cleanser, but in reality, it can potentially irritate the sensitive vaginal area since fermentation has made yogurt’s active ingredients easier for the skin to absorb. It can also be a messy practice. She suggests eating the yogurt instead: The good bacteria will flow through your system and contribute to vaginal health.
Wax, treat, or embellish at your own risk.
The jury is still out on the safety of Brazilian waxing as a grooming procedure, so you can proceed with your next appointment–but do so with caution.
Acknowledging that there are mixed reviews about going bare down there, Dr. Cornelio says it should pose no serious harm to your health if administered properly, though there have been isolated cases of increased wart growth in some patients who have undergone waxing.
Citing recent dermatological studies published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), Dr. Bravo says waxing can “induce small breaks or tears in the skin,” which, if you’re not careful, can become entryways for viruses, including sexually-transmitted infections (STI) like the human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes simplex virus (HSV).
“As of now, research has not proven that waxing causes STI transmission,” explains Dr. Bravo.
“It is just that, if micro-abrasions are produced with the procedure, you may be susceptible to acquiring these viruses through sexual activity. So, be cautious.”
In the same vein, if you’re into Vajazzling, or adorning your lady bits with tiny stick-on gems post waxing, it’s probably best to wait at least a day before you do. Allow this sensitive area to recover from the temporary stress caused by waxing to avoid the risk of further disturbing the skin.
And then there’s V-Steaming, which is exactly what it sounds like: a steam bath for your vagina. Inspired by a traditional Korean health practice, V-Steaming has clients perch on an open-seated chair over a basin of hot herbal water. The steam from this brew reportedly fights infections, regulates menstrual cycles, and aids infertility, among many other benefits.
But while herbs do have medicinal powers, experts are on the fence about their effectiveness in this practice. “I presume it’s an equivalent of our local ‘pausok,’ which uses guava leaves in warm water to supposedly help with vaginal repair in postpartum women,” says Dr. Cornelio.
“I haven’t seen it done in the city; however, it’s still a common practice in provinces. There’s no scientific evidence to support or reject this practice for vaginal well-being.”
It can return to its old tightness after childbirth.
However, this may be less likely to happen after your second delivery.
Says Dr. Bravo, “There could be some laxity if you’ve given birth more than once or twice.”
There are natural methods you can try to address this concern. According to Dr. Bravo, the most natural and least costly way to do it is through Kegel Exercises: Squeeze your internal pelvic muscle “as you do automatically after urinating,” hold for about four seconds, and release. Repeat five to six times daily.
You need to let it breathe.
Many experts, including Dr. Cornelio, encourage going commando at night.
Tight panties trap moisture in the area, making it the perfect breeding environment for infection-causing bacteria.
If you’re uncomfortable about sleeping in the nude, at least change into loose undergarments and sleepwear before going to bed. During the day, opt for underwear in soft, breathable fabrics like cotton, and change out of wet, sweaty clothes as soon as you can.
This story originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Good Housekeeping Philippines magazine. Minor edits have been made by the PEP.ph editors.